The following article provides tips based on my years of paddling. Be sure to also watch the "Kayaking with Kids" video from an REI Outdoor School instructor for a quick overview of these topics.
The spectrum of people "right" for paddling is as wide as the ocean. However, be cautious. Never take a child on the water unless you are well experienced—or be sure to invite an experienced paddler with you. Plan on one adult for every child until all paddlers' levels are determined and you know and trust all members of the group. If you have enough adults, then your child can invite a friend or 2.
With kids, you generally want to find calm water and minimal current unless you are very experienced and have the appropriate boats for the situation. Start on protected small lakes, bays and slow rivers in order to develop skills and reduce stress levels. With every additional trip, your options broaden.
Our daughter has been camping with us on overnighters and long weekend trips since she was a baby, but we were already experienced paddlers by then. Four years before she was born, my husband and I paddled the Pacific coast from Alaska's Glacier Bay to Washington's Puget Sound in 2 singles. During this 5-month period, we learned how to read the water, face challenges, work together and keep our humor about us.
You certainly don't need to start paddling at this level to guide your children, but keep in mind that most people you see in more challenging paddling environments have likely trained for them.
Be conservative when deciding how long to be out. This way, if you exceed your expectations, you all win. Half an hour to an hour is just right for all first trips regardless of age. For babies and toddlers, try just a moment of sitting in the cockpit at the water's edge. One rule of thumb is to plan your trip in short loops about one-third the usual distance you would travel with your adult counterparts. Generally, the older the child, the more time you can spend on the water. Also, consider the child's:
If your trip is months from now, consider signing yourself and the kids up for swimming and kayaking lessons. These are often offered at community pools and help to reduce everyone's anxiety levels. You'd be surprised how quickly kids learn to feel comfortable scrambling in and out of a boat practicing a wet-exit or roll. It's really kid-friendly. See the REI Expert Advice Getting Started Kayaking article and video for a few basics.
For another layer of training, why not prepare for the trip by working out with your kids? Go for some long runs (we call them "crossings" by pretending that we need to make it from one ridge to the next just like you would paddling from one island to the next—you really can't stop!). When you make it back home, lift weights or do pull-ups and push-ups together to enhance the push and pull of your paddle stroke.
When deciding whether to choose a canoe or kayak for your trip, consider the type of waters you'll be visiting, the age and ability of your child, and the goals of the trip. You will be balancing many variables, such as comfort levels, seat choice, paddling opportunities for the children and the need to reach a destination. Make sure not to sacrifice the process for the goal—try to let all ages paddle at least part of the time.
Children ages 4 to 7 (or even younger depending on their temperament) will do just fine in the bow of a kayak but will generally not provide much propulsion, so your distances are limited to their success in the bow. When paddling with children under 7, I highly recommend a canoe —sea canoes are best—whether you plan to be on fresh or salt water. Canoes are stable and offer lots of gear and wiggle room for this age group. They also easily accommodate 2 or 3 kid riders plus adults.
By the time children reach approximately 8 years of age, they are ready to paddle the bow of either a kayak or canoe and not impede your desire to get somewhere. By this point, they are also particularly capable of learning and executing paddling skills.
Make sure to practice wet-exits, high braces and other safety techniques in the boat type that you choose. See the Expert Advice Wet Exits and Rescues article to get started.
Colder waters: If you are on colder or bigger water, then go with a decked kayak or a canoe with a spray deck (a cover made of waterproof fabric). Have your child sit in the bow or in the middle (with one adult in the bow and the more experienced adult, perhaps you, in the stern or rear of the boat) until the day comes when the child is experienced enough to handle a single in colder waters. Because the middle compartment of most kayaks is made for gear and not children, it doesn't come with a spray skirt and tends to take on splash. However, on calm waters, sitting in the center of kayaks is fine.
Warmer waters: In warm-water places such as Baja, Hawaii or the Florida Keys, or on calmer inland freshwater in the summer, a sit-on-top kayak becomes an attractive option. With some creativity, these craft can fit up to 3 small children. You can even find inflatable kayaks if you don't want to invest in a carrier or have limited storage space. (Be aware that sit-on-tops are not appropriate for exposed crossings or great distances from shore).
Tip: For canoes and some sit-on-tops, infant car seats make great baby chairs (and the canopies come in handy). But do not strap either the seat in the boat or the child in the seat. Simple seat cushions will do for all older kids.
For more information on kayak types, see the REI Expert Advice How to Choose a Kayak article.
Your children's ages, sizes, physical abilities, paddling experience and other qualities will determine whether they come along in a single or double, and as a paddler or duffer. These same factors apply to adults, particularly regarding skill level.
Duffing, or riding in the boat's center compartment, is a great beginning place for all young paddlers. Though duffers may not be helping to propel the boat, they are learning about the feel of the boat. Approximate age range recommendations:
When it comes to safety, there's no room to skimp. It's now the law for all people in small craft to wear a PFD. Find a U.S. Coast Guard-approved model and follow the rules for usage and sizing. PFDs are sized for infants (8-30 lbs.), children (30-50 lbs.) and youth (50-90 lbs.). On an infant PFD, the neck pad is critical for keeping the child's head positioned correctly in the case of capsize. In addition, always secure the crotch strap to make sure your child doesn't go down while the PDF goes up.
See the REI Expert Advice How to Choose a PFD for a Child article for shopping help.
Tip: Babies and toddlers sometimes "hate" their PFD. This catches many parents by surprise when they are ready to set off and the baby refuses the PFD with a tantrum. We've had to change plans entirely so one adult could stay back on shore with a toddler who had never seen such a strange, stiff coat. Therefore, if possible, prepare youngsters ahead of time at home. Offer a reward for keeping it on or make a game of it. Explain its purpose without creating a scare.
Shop REI's selection of kids' PFDs .
Lines and floats are important in rescue situations, but it's critical to know the safety techniques that accompany them, such as the aforementioned wet-exit (a technique in which a paddler leaves the cockpit and then climbs back into it, usually under forced conditions such as a capsize or emergency situation). Do not over-rely on these items, or on books or videos, to substitute for safety— take classes to practice!
Safety line and float gear includes a:
Warning: Never tie or tether a child to the boat. This creates more danger than protection.
Shop REI's selection of kayak safety gear .
If you know how to pack for yourself, you'll probably know how to pack for the kids. Be clear about who is in charge of packing what. Split the packing responsibilities right down the middle along with the other adults. Involve the kids in this part of the adventure. Together, you will all see that packing is mental preparation and motivation for the trip.
Tips: Kids age 7 and older often like to be in charge of their own packing and bags. Give them a list to follow, but discreetly let them know that you'll double-check their bags when they're done. Praise their efforts. Encourage them to keep their pack near them in the boat for access to a coat or snack.
Hydration is important, too. Keep a water bottle close at hand and make a conscious effort to consume enough water throughout the day. The exertion of paddling, combined with sunlight reflecting off of the water, can increase your fluid requirements more than you might think. Water pillows carry the most water for paddle craft because they can be filled to capacity and still fit easily under the seats, where you want to keep the weight.
Layering with water-resistant, breathable fibers (e.g., rashguards, merino wool, polyester, weather-resistant shell) is the secret to comfort. Bring extra pants for kids under 7 years old who, no matter what, always seem to get filthy and wet. Don't bother with cotton unless you're in extremely warm conditions. Always store clothing in durable, waterproof "dry bags" strapped tightly to the inside of the boat with no loose loops or ropes to trap a paddler.
Some of my favorites for kids:
Remember that you generally bring the same gear for one night as you would for a week. For day paddles or very short paddles near your car and/or other facilities, you can perhaps forego some items.
For 5 to 9 year olds (in addition to the adult list):
For all ages:
Always review the procedures for a wet-exit with adults and children alike before putting in. Make sure to go over examples of what might happen, and don't rush. You want all questions to be answered ahead of time.
Leave ample time to relax and reconnect once the boats are loaded before pulling away, including making sure that the kids have gone to the bathroom and put on their sunscreen. Our daughter sometimes felt pre-trip anxiety just before boarding. If the surf wasn't up, we would give her a few moments to float with us in the boat near shore to allow confidence to set in. At that point, also offer a handful of gorp; it's easy to forget that loading a boat uses up calories, too, and you don't want to start the trip hungry.
Go slow: Go about one-third your normal pace and don't get separated. Always be within voice of all children and adults in the group. If you have extra adults, it's fine for them to separate from the group, but the rougher the water, the closer all boats should be, though don't crowd either, particularly in currents and high waves.
Teach: Talk with your young paddler about the water's action while showing the correct response. This can include such techniques as drawing into an eddy, bracing against a wave and navigating the currents.
Provide rules: Be clear and simple about rules. No standing, no leaning, etc. Make the kids enumerate the rules and know the consequences when protocol isn't followed.
Empower: Let the slowest paddler lead, then switch. This can become a game and adds a great deal of interest for the kids. If you are paddling a double with a young or inexperienced one, take your time and let him or her take breaks. Let the little duffers paddle once in a while, too. A few minutes are likely all they'll want, but they'll feel useful and gain practice.
All kinds of things can crop up while afloat that you might not have anticipated. So go with the flow, keep your spirits up and stick with it. Don't let the whining duffer get you down. Boredom is perhaps the worst enemy of kids who are not used to having to generate their own fun—especially the duffers, who might benefit from paddling for a few minutes.
Try spicing up the day with a game like tag or follow the leader. Sing a tune, assign a navigator or hand out treats. If pure exhaustion is the cause of distress and changing to a different paddle or changing the paddle stroke doesn't help, then take a break if possible. Offer to do most of the paddling for a while, if not for the duration of the trip. If the tired paddler is in a single kayak, don't rule out offering to tow.
Finally, reward the kids with whatever you promised them earlier in the day, such as dinner at their favorite restaurant or an extra hour on the phone with friends to share the experience. If you're camping, then don't forget the s'mores!
By Maren Van Nostrand
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Last updated: Thu Aug 16 09:57:56 PDT 2012
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